By Brandon Tripp, Sports Writer
Henry Willis came to ACU in 1968 as a basketball transfer from Howard County Junior College; little did he know he was blazing the way for black athletes at ACU for more than the next 30 years.
ACU was partly integrated in 1962 when Washington D. Harris enrolled as a graduate student to become the first African-American on campus. One year later, the school fully integrated, allowing black freshmen to enroll at the college. It was not until 1968 that a black athlete was allowed on an ACU roster. Willis was the first African-American on any ACU basketball team and one of the first black athletes on the entire campus.
The decision to integrate ACU athletics was made in part because of the national movement taking place in major universities and professional sports at the time, said Wally Bullington, athletic director emeritus.
By 1968, when ACU athletics integrated, Texas Western University’s improbable victory with five black athlete starters in the NCAA National Basketball Championship already had taken place, Ernie Davis had won the Heisman Trophy as the first African-American to do so and Jackie Robinson had become the first African-American to be inducted to the MLB Hall of Fame.
Other educational institutions in Abilene already had integrated their athletics. Woodson High School, which was the all black high school, closed down and all of its students moved to Abilene High School, which was all white at the time, one year before in 1967.
Another factor in ACU’s allowance of black athletes was that universities, and society in general, were realizing the long-standing stereotype that black athletes were not mentally equipped to handle the pressures of Division I or professional sports was just that: a bad stereotype.
With the climate of the times, demonstrations, riots or fights would be understandable, but Bullington said these did not take place.
“We never had any problems on the football side that I ever knew of or heard about,” he said.
Although violent incidents did not occur on campus as far as Bullington knew, some tension did appear between some smaller town white students, who had never come into contact with African-Americans before, and other black students.
“You could always tell when people didn’t know what to do around each other; there were just some awkward moments,” Willis said.
Bullington said he thinks integration was easier in a football locker room than on the campus as a whole.
“Our guys had to get along because you will never win with a bunch of individuals; they had to learn to play together no matter how they felt,” he said.
Whatever awkward tension might have existed in the past has long since been removed. Today’s campus looks much different from the campus Willis stepped foot on 31 years ago. Instead of a few black students on campus, ACU now has more than 200. It is hard to tell the campus was ever devoid of black athletes. African-American athletes have time and time again written their names into ACU history books. The Wildcat football team boasted 10 black players who made it to the NFL. Among them is Wilbert Montgomery, who holds seven Philadelphia Eagles rushing records; Johnny Perkins, who was a big name wide receiver for the New York Jets; Daniel Manning, who made his mark in the NFL and ACU athletics history when he started in the 2007 Superbowl versus the Indianapolis Colts; and Johnny Knox and Bernard Scott, who were picked by the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively, in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Although ACU felt the impact of racism last fall semester when former SA President Daniel Paul Watkins said he found a noose in his office chair, the event had little to no effect on ACU athletics teams. What could have sparked racial tension among ACU’s athletics teams brought, at least the football team, together. The players decided they were not going to let the actions of a few jeopardize what chemistry they had created.
“It didn’t affect them; they had told themselves that those events had nothing to do with them as a team,” Bullington said.
Integration has seemed to work well for the Wildcat athletics teams; what might have begun with some tension and concerns has turned into a strong point for the campus.
As Bullington looks to the future of integration in ACU’s athletic programs, he said he thinks student-athletes who are recruited by ACU will continue the tolerance that has grown so strong within Wildcat teams, and not only tolerance but also a bond between athletes.
“The athletics department has always made it a priority to ensure racial tolerance, and that should not change in the future,” Bullington said.